New Year and Christmas is no laughing matter for many people. It is at these times that our sense of isolation and despair can be acute. This is especially so if we find ourselves on our own or because we are feeling particularly sad or worried. In winter we can be tempted to move into hibernation.
Without meaning to be insensitive these are also times for healing and growth. The new year can be a source for hope and a chance to move on into a new year with an optimistic plan.
Science backs this up. When we are pessimistic and listless parts of our brain associated with getting out and about and getting things done are shut down. Hormones that are natural anti-depressants are much lower in winter as well as when we are feeling down and hopeless. But we can energise ourselves and we can “jump start” our nervous systems and these are just a few things you can do. They may sound simple but they are based on science and they may just work for you.
1 Make new year resolutions that are simple and involve people and activity. Just by writing a simple plan you release energising hormones. And if this plan involves simple activities, its implementation will release other feel good hormones.
The act of writing a plan helps shift the balance away from the depressed part of the brain to the ones associated with optimism. People in a low mood can have less energy in the left side of the brain and more energy in the right side – this means less optimism and motivation.
Where possible place people into your future plan but pick people who are not likely to argue with you, who will support and encourage you. Hormones associated with reducing worry and nervousness are produced when we are in the right company which make us feel better about others and ourselves.
2 Weather permitting get out and about outside. Winter can deprive us of light and sunlight and we may go short of natural feel good hormones that are stimulated through daylight and which would make us feel positive.
When we are outside, we can feel the benefits of being re-connected with nature and there are plenty of personal stories written by people who have recommended this as a way to improve happiness.
3 Don’t give up on your plans. Even if you have a setback and aren’t able to keep to your plans, use this as an opportunity to consider why. Being focused and resilient to a plan is no easy task but is achieved on the back of temporary set backs including plans that haven’t worked. Revisit and revise your plans and refuse to give yourself the excuse that because your plan hasn’t worked it never will work.
Interested in the science behind all this?, Steve Lyon senior lecturer and accredited cognitive behavioural therapist is discussing this with the BIG in mental health group on the 9th January, 2017 at 6.15pm at Bury United Reformed Church, Parsons Lane Bury, BL9 0LY. Attendance is for those with experience of mental health issues personally or as a carer – which means most of us. This talk also discusses the recruitment of compassionate nurses. Or if you can’t attend you may want to read his accompanying notes below.
There is a degree of science that supports the positive effects of goal planning. These include looking at brain changes as a result of goal setting and the effects of planning on the mood including improving depression.
Goal setting and planning results in a shift of energy from the right brain to the left brain. The left brain is concerned with getting involved and sorting out problems and feeling hopeful. The right brain is associated with withdrawal and a more pessimistic outlook. See the work of Davidson (2013) or Dien (2008) or Harmon-Jones (2010) or Tops (2017) for some reading on this.
Once the left side is in action there is stimulation of the reward system release of the natural anti depressant dopamine and a sense of pleasure and achievement.
The writing of action plans and their follow through has been the subject of research and there is largely agreement that becoming active is equivalent to receiving therapy that targets thinking (cognitive therapy). See Richards and colleagues (2017) for research on this.
Watkins (2016) has studied depression and what helps and concluded that in depression where people get bogged down (rumination) improve with becoming more active. But the activity needs to be well specified and not a list of vague and meaningless aims.
Watkins work is based on the science that people who are prone to getting depressed or worried tend to see the world and themselves through blanket statements. This results in unhelpful labels “I’m a loser” “I never do anything right” “All people dislike me” “I’m lazy” etc.
We can use this science to start planning for the new year with the following in mind:
1 Writing plans will “kick start” the brain into action;
2 Regardless of how we feel we should try and stick to our plans. People who are prone to worry and depression can put things off and this isn’t helpful;
3 Plans should be specific;
4 Plans should be based on what we want not necessarily what others expect of us;
5 If a plan fails treat it as a positive opportunity to reflect on how we deal with setbacks;
6 People who are less prone to depression view setbacks as temporary and set it in perspective “I failed this time but this was because of this set of circumstances and not because I’m a failure” .
Good luck over Christmas and the New Year
The following reading may be of interest to the more scientific minded although Davidson’s book is quite readable and there are a couple of interesting “All in the Mind” programmes that discuss motivation and the brain:
Listen to Professor Todorov on procrastination
Davidson RJ, Begley, S. (2013) The Emotional Life of Your Brain: how to change the way you think, feel and live. London, Hodder and Staunton.
Dien, J. (2008). Looking both ways through time: The janus model of lateralized cognition. Brain and Cognition, 67(3), 292-323. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2008.02.007
Hanssen, M. M., Vancleef, L. M. G., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., Hayes, A. F., Schouten, E. G. W., & Peters, M. L. (2015). Optimism, motivational coping and well-being: Evidence supporting the importance of flexible goal adjustment. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(6), 1525-1537. doi:10.1007/s10902-014-9572-x
Harmon-Jones, E., Gable, P. A., & Peterson, C. K. (2010). The role of asymmetric frontal cortical activity in emotion-related phenomena: A review and update. Biological Psychology, 84(3), 451-462. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.08.010
Richards, D. A., Ekers, D., McMillan, D., Taylor, R. S., Byford, S., Warren, F. C., . . . Finning, K. (2016). Cost and outcome of behavioural activation versus cognitive behavioural therapy for depression (COBRA): A randomised, controlled, non-inferiority trial. The Lancet, 388(10047), 871-880. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31140-0
Tops, M., Quirin, M., Boksem, M. A. S., & Koole, S. L. (2017). Large-scale neural networks and the lateralization of motivation and emotion. International Journal of Psychophysiology, doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2017.02.004
Watkins, ER (2016) Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression. New York: Guilford.